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Mitt Romney drives a wedge into the tea party

In South Carolina, the movement is divided between those inclined to compromise in order to beat President Obama (vote for Romney) and those favoring ideological purity (vote against him).

January 21, 2012|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
  • South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, left, with Mitt Romney, whom she has endorsed for president. Haley's endorsement has upset many of the tea party activists who helped elect her in 2010.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, left, with Mitt Romney, whom she has endorsed… (Michael Reynolds, European…)

Reporting from Columbia, S.C. — Karen Martin was one of the original tea partyers in a state that helped birth the movement. One of her biggest achievements was helping Nikki Haley beat the old-boy network to become governor.

So when Haley threw her support behind Mitt Romney's presidential bid, Martin, like many tea party activists, was not at all pleased. She has two political priorities: beating President Obama and making sure someone other than Romney faces him in November.

"I want someone with a core of conservative values that have stayed the same all along," said Martin, a tea party leader in Spartanburg County, who will support Newt Gingrich Saturday in the first Southern primary.

South Carolina was a hotbed of conservative insurgency in 2010, electing Haley, sweeping other tea party favorites into statewide and local offices and sending several acolytes to Congress. Yet by endorsing Romney, Haley has underscored a schism that has emerged within the fledging movement, between some who are embracing the political system — and the compromise it sometimes requires — and others who are still fighting it.

As the Republican presidential race spreads across the country, it is pitting tea party faithful against one another in state after state, threatening the movement in the process.

To some, the divisions are no different than ideological splits within the Republican Party or, for that matter, among Democrats. "Because it's a broad-based movement you have a diversity of opinions," said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, one of the largest groups operating under the tea party banner. "It's not just people wearing Colonial hats and waving funny signs.... There are people on all sides."

But others see the endorsement of Romney, the front-runner and preferred candidate of the Republican Party establishment, as a betrayal that signals the end of the tea party movement and its rebellious spirit.

What especially rankles is the healthcare plan he implemented as governor of Massachusetts, which served as a model for Obama's national overhaul — which, in turn, put the match to kindling and set the tea party movement blazing.

"It is almost impossible to believe and violently sickening to accept ... that the GOP stands on the cusp of returning to 'establishmentism,'" Kevin McCullough, a talk radio host and tea party activist, wrote in a recent commentary on Townhall.com. "But it appears that for all the big talk [and] tens of thousands of local rallies ... the Tea Party has died."

Romney was notably absent when activists gathered this week at a tea party convention in Myrtle Beach. Former House Speaker Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum both addressed the hundreds in attendance, challenging Romney and his convictions without mentioning the former governor by name. (Each criticized him to his face, however, in Thursday's debate.)

Haley was also on hand, but acknowledged to reporters that her Romney endorsement only mattered so much.

"No member of the tea party will vote in a bloc because someone tells them to," said Haley, who has suffered a steep decline in popularity, even among Republicans, after a rocky first year in office. "You are going to see them very divided through this as they go to decide who is best for them."

The anti-Romney outrage expressed by some may overstate the unhappiness among the tea party rank and file. (The definition of membership is necessarily an imprecise one, given the proudly diffuse nature of the movement, which consists of countless independent offshoots.) Plenty of tea party sympathizers seem to like Romney, and especially his message of fiscal prudence.

In Iowa, entrance polls showed Romney winning 14% of the vote among strong tea party backers — just behind Texas Rep. Ron Paul, one of the movement's ideological forebears — and beating Paul among those "somewhat" supportive of the movement. Santorum, who narrowly won the most votes in the caucuses, carried a plurality among both groups.

In New Hampshire, Romney won more than a third of strong tea party supporters and nearly half of those who declared themselves somewhat supportive, easily besting both Santorum and Paul.

Still, embracing Romney has made for some uncomfortable moments for prominent tea party favorites like Curtis Loftis, South Carolina's treasurer and the chairman of Romney's state campaign. Loftis won office in 2010 with strong movement support and concedes that his presidential endorsement was met with "consternation" among some of backers.

Like Haley, Loftis was attracted by Romney's business background and credentials as a Washington outsider. But Loftis had something else in mind as well: electability.

"We need someone who can win not just South Carolina" — one of the ruddiest of red states — "but Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio," Loftis said in an interview between campaign stops. "Mitt Romney can do that."

If that sounds suspiciously pragmatic — and seems apt to alarm some in the movement — Loftis makes no apologies.

"Second place in a presidential election is last place," he said. "There's no good having a candidate who's 100% pure who can't get elected."

Martin calls that "a very weak reason" to back Romney, saying other candidates could just as easily defeat Obama.

But, she concludes, if there is no other choice come November she will reluctantly support Romney, to avoid another four years of this president.

In that way, Obama — rather than a Republican like Haley or Loftis — may be the politician best able to heal any tea party rift.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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